Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

February 2010

John Vincent Bellezza

Ringing in the Year of the Iron Tiger
Flight of the Khyung sends you best wishes for the Tibetan Year of the Iron Tiger! Iron Tiger years are traditionally believed to be a time of decisive action, hard choices and unstoppable developments. We shall see. Deterministic astrological conceptions aside, grappling with environmental degradation, food security and swings in the geopolitical balance will give us all enough to contend with in 2010. Ideally, such universal challenges will motivate each us to search for answers that foster peace, dignity and justice, even if only in the confines of our own backyard.

Divine soundings from the great female lakes
For a fourth month running, Flight of the Khyung highlights a spirit-medium from Upper Tibet. This last in the series about the human receptacles of the gods is devoted to a well-known shamaness who resides in a district of the northwest. As she is still active as a spirit-medium, it is best that details about her identity and life are kept confidential. We shall simply call her Tshomo, a tried and true Tibetan name. Female spirit-mediums in Upper Tibet are referred to as lumo (female serpent [woman]), lhamo (goddess [woman]) and commonly carry the epithet pamo (heroine).

In previous issues, I have touched upon questions concerning the epistemology of the trance state. While arriving at few conclusions about the phenomenology of this type of altered state of consciousness, several philosophical matters with wider implications for the nature of the human mind have been brought to the fore.

It remains to be determined how much of the underlying personality of a spirit-medium is present in the trance state. According to traditional Tibetan reckonings, the consciousness of a bona fide medium is entirely displaced when he or she is fully under the influence of the gods. Those who retain traces of their personal identity are viewed as charlatans. Still, it seems to me that the psychic vessel in which the ‘gods’ are carried plays a significant role in the way in which the possessing entity presents itself.

In any case, there is a transitional state of consciousness when both the medium and the possessing force appear to be simultaneously present at the trance venue. This occurs in two phases of the proceedings: when it is believed that the deities are descending upon the medium at the onset of the trance, and when the deities are thought to be retreating from the medium’s body at the conclusion of the trance.

What does this ebb and flow of a medium’s ordinary consciousness tell us about the trance state? It would appear that the obliteration and restoration of conventional perceptual and cognitive faculties is a graded process. A certain length of time is required to overcome or retrieve the normal consciousness. Given the complexities of the human brain, this morphing of the mind must be far more complicated than the mere saving or deleting of data on a computer. Modern brain imaging techniques such as MRI scans could prove invaluable in identifying the transformations in neurological activity that characterize the transition between the ordinary and ‘divine’ states of consciousness.

I observed and recorded one of Tshomo’s trances in the summer of 2004. Although this recording was made before my book on the spirit-mediums of Upper Tibet, Calling Down the Gods, was published, it came too late to be incorporated in that work. I have been sitting on the proceedings of Tshomo’s trance ever since, what with so much other Tibetological work piling up. We had requested Tshomo to go into trance for two major reasons: so that I could learn about the lineages of native female deities and to divine whether a young Tibetan traveling with us would be able to attend university abroad.

Tshomo as the lake goddess Lham Tsho ChormoTshomo as the lake goddess Lham Tsho Chormo

Tshomo as the lake goddess Lham Tsho Chormo

The first five minutes of the trance ceremony was occupied with Buddhist invocations, including standard refuge prayers and obeisance to Guru Rinpoche and the Karmapas. During this preliminary stage of the proceedings the shamaness’ intermediary tied the white offering scarf that my companions and I offered to her headdress. This gesture indicated that we were the sponsors or petitioners of the ceremony.

The pace of Tshomo’s chanting and her playing of the flat-bell and hand-drum gradually intensified until it became a rapid-fire staccato. Then a long-winded cry accompanied by the exclamation ‘E!’ and a number of unintelligible lines marked the beginning of spirit-possession, a phase of the trance that lasted a little over three minutes. During the advent of the deities Tshomo uttered lines such as:
The only father Dam-pa sangs-rgyas.
Ma-gcig lab kyi sgron-ma.
Dharma Body (Chos-sku), the sky-treading protectors of Dharma.
I purify the five orders of Victorious Ones.
I purify white men and white horses.
I offer to the white men and white horses of Thang-lha.
I offer to the black dogs of Thang-lha.

The arrival of the presiding goddess of the trance and the full possession of Tshomo was heralded by long, penetrating sounds: ’um ’um ’um. The chief deity of the ceremony was Lham Tsho Chormo (Lha-mtsho mchor-mo), the ‘Lake Goddess of Riches’, a member of the retinue of Nam Tsho Chukmo (gNam-mtsho phyug-mo), the goddess of Lake Nam Tsho. Tshomo envisions Lham Tsho Chormo as being attired in aqueous garments of green. After announcing her divine identity, Tshomo as Lham Tsho Chormo declaimed the lineage of the water spirits, a tradition known as klu-rabs. Her origin tale effortlessly interwove indigenous lore with Buddhist teachings, reflecting the religious syncretism of present-day Upper Tibet. A selection of Tshomo’s klu-rabs utterances reads as follows:

It is gNam-mtsho mchor-mo.
It is the white lady.
It is the lady of riches.
It is gNam-mtsho mchor-mo of Thang-lha.
The specially colored wild yak of Thang-lha…
The powerful water spirit gNam-mtsho mchor-mo,
The queen of the eight circles of gods.
Well, the Dharma place of Upper India (Tibet).
The doctrine of Buddhism…
Well, rise up female water spirits.
gNam-mtsho phyug-mo is the chief of the [female] water spirits.
Khyung-lo dkar-po (Thang-lha) is the chief of the [male] water spirits…

E! Today at this time, I send the gods.
Lha klu-mo dung-skyong (Thang-lha and gNam-mtsho) is the chief of the water spirits.
The palace is Dharma divine castle (gsas-mkhar).
The Victorious wish-Fulfilling Jewel is the 15 empowerments of the venerated castle (sku-mkhar).
Klu dung-skyong (gNam-mtsho) is the powerful water spirit.
If I was to tell you the story of me.
The story of the Dharma.
When I explain the story of my previous life,
Dang-ra [lake]…
When the mandala and divine support came into being.
Rig-gsum mgon-po (the three main Biddhisattvas).
Triangular and circular stupa.
Above the stupa of ferocious ablutions is the playground of me the female water spirit.
That is the Dharma story of the beginning of existence.
Today, at this time, you are the many who have gathered.
I go together and stay together [with you]…

According to the thousands of water spirit stories of the chief water spirit,
when the chief water spirit, the god of males,
Came into existence gNam-mtsho mchor-mo was {?}.
It is like the young dragon.
When the human generations and chief females came into existence,
There was gNam-mtsho klu-mo dung-skyong.
It is like that if you understand.
Still, to tell you, I female water spirit;
Doctrines of the Dharma customs of Tibet,
The words of Tibetan Dharma are the kingdom.

After telling the tale of the origins of the water spirits, which lasted more than 15 minutes, the possessing goddess went on to make her prophecies concerning the higher education of one of those present. This individual did indeed go on to attend university in a foreign country, vindicating the prediction made. Whether the ‘gods’ were responsible for divining the correct answer, I leave it up to the reader to decide. In recognition of Buddhist tradition, Tshomo as Lham Tsho Chormo encouraged the student to say many mantras. Yet, in the next line as a concession to ancient Tibet tradition she exhorted him to make sanguinary offerings. This nicely illustrates the manner in which the disparate religious traditions of Tibet are not always well reconciled with one another. In fact, they sometimes exist uneasily side by side. These contradictions are not often openly acknowledged, ingrained as they are in more than 1000 years of Upper Tibetan cultural history. Curiously, in her speech the goddess cites upper respiratory illness as the epidemic of our times.

Are there obstacles to sending him to university?
E! By Rig-gsum mgon-po there is no obstacle.
It is the time of him succeeding.
He must recite many mantras for clearing away obstacles.
He must make many blood sacrifices and praise the tsen spirits.
Certainly, without a doubt he will succeed…
When he goes to university there are many colds and flus.
These are the diseases of this epoch.
In the lower valleys of Ngari country colds and flus are rare…
He must pray unchangingly to the Victorious Wish-Fulfilling Gem…
I the female water spirit do not need to do for him.

After the oracular utterances were finished, Tshomo once again proclaimed her divine status before falling out of trance. An interesting and thought-provoking evening had drawn to a close.

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